Ah, With Honors (1994). A major film of my youth, and very mid-’90s (the soundtrack, the earnest acting, the annoying Joe Pesci accent, the lumpy sweaters and plaid). The quintessential feel-good movie about how terrible higher education is.
Some scenes were filmed on the Harvard campus, but film locations also included the University of Illinois at Chicago; University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; and the University of Minnesota. The Widener Library plays a big role in the film, although its librarians are featured only briefly.
At the end of the opening credits, campus radio DJ (Patrick Dempsey) reports on a Walt Whitman ghost sighting in Widener Library (“America’s greatest poet haunting the library?”). A few minutes later, uptight Harvard student Monty (Brendan Fraser) accidentally drops his thesis down the grate and discovers that the library ghost is a homeless man, Simon Wilder (Joe Pesci), living in the bowels of the library. Simon strikes up a deal with Monty — food and lodging in exchange for the thesis.
About a half-hour into the film, Simon and Monty enter the Widener Library together (see film clip below). Simon attracts a lot of negative attention but waxes rhapsodic, “This library’s like a church isn’t it?” (Yes, it is quite beautiful.) An older, bespectacled librarian (Patricia B. Butcher as Librarian) with a short, grayish bob and wearing conservative clothes (a grey suit and a white, frilly, high-necked blouse) and conservative jewelry (a string of pearls and a brooch), walks across the room to the pair. She taps Simon the shoulder and tells him he can’t stay there. How do we know she’s a librarian? She’s carrying a book, of course!
Monty hurriedly says he’s with him, “He’s part of my research project.” The librarian responds, “Oh, I beg your pardon” and walks away, looking back once over her shoulder.
Not bothered by the incident, Simon remarks, “Women. Ain’t they perfect?”
Monty — still reflecting a similar attitude to the librarian — warns him to keep his voice low so he won’t attract attention. But then when Monty asks a question, he earns a “Shhh!” from Simon.
The unnamed librarian is your basic Information Provider, reflecting the general social attitude toward homeless people.
A little over an hour into the film, Monty spends Christmas by himself. After hearing bad news about Simon’s health conditions, Monty’s back in the Widener Library, gazing blankly over a pile of books. Behind him, it looks like the library staff are (quietly) sharing Christmas gift exchange at a desk. We see the same librarian as before, sitting to the left, dressed in a festive red cardigan and white blouse. Three other females and one male librarian are grouped around the desk/table. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in a scene highlighting Monty’s loneliness and sadness, the librarians provide the (literal) backdrop!
Altogether, the reel librarians appear onscreen for less than a minute total, earning this film a spot in the Class IV category.
Although the reel librarians here don’t come across too well — neither does higher education — libraries still get a shout-out. Simon compares libraries to churches. He also is mad about losing his home in the library’s furnace room, and for good reason: “I had a home. I had a warm place to sleep. 17 bathrooms and 8 miles of books. I had a goddamn palace!”
And at the very end of the film, after Simon has passed away, Monty goes back to the Widener Library. He looks around reverently and — bringing the film full circle — places a well-worn copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on an empty library table. The library/church has become Simon’s de facto mausoleum, a fitting conclusion to his memory and influence.
- With Honors. Dir. Alek Keshishian. Perf. Joe Pesci, Brendan Fraser, Moira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey. Warner Bros., 1994.